starring Søren Malling, Pilou Asbæk, Dar Salim, Roland Møller
written and directed by Tobias Lindholm
by Angelo Muredda Finely-tuned but incurious about most of what falls outside its blinkered gaze, A Hijacking is about as good as this sort of stripped-down procedural filmmaking gets--Akira Kurosawa's High and Low reconfigured for a telephonic showdown between Somali pirates and Danish shareholders. Only the second feature from Tobias Lindholm (who proves much more capable as a director than as the author of The Hunt's lazy allegorical punts about the concern-trolling parents of small-town Denmark), the film feels like the work of a yeoman who's in no hurry to be recognized as a visual stylist unless the material should merit such flourishes. Annoying as that no-frills approach can be in countless austere imitations of the Dardennes and Michael Haneke, it's more than welcome here in a film whose title might otherwise have ended with a gaudy exclamation mark.
Fictional but set on a vessel that was subject to an actual pirate attack some years back, A Hijacking divides its time evenly between the experiences of a few workers stranded on a hijacked ship and those of the corporate operators tasked with bailing out these hostages from the relative comfort of a boardroom. Our natural identification point is the ship's cook, Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk), whom we first see in safer times calling his wife to tell her he'll be home a few days late, then pick up with in drastically-changed circumstances minutes later, with an automatic rifle aimed at the back of his head. In between, and back in Copenhagen, we meet frosty but not unsympathetic CEO Peter (prolific Danish film and TV actor Søren Malling), who, against the advice of his piracy advisor (Gary Skjoldmose Porter, an actual negotiator), decides to lead the negotiations with the pirates' medium Omar (Abdihakin Asgar) himself, instead of appointing a neutral third party.
Lindholm's pared-down structure, which alternates these two environments on a scene-by-scene basis without much fuss, is a coup, ratcheting up the tension in scenes where we aren't privy to the reasoning behind each man's negotiation strategy. Often we're left in the lurch with each respective listener, unable to discern hollow manipulation from real escalation on either side; one moment, with Peter agonizing over the audio replay of a botched money offer, is as tortured as any of the obsessive sleuthing in De Palma's Blow Out. Both settings are shot via handheld cameras and deferent to the natural light in which the conversations unfold--a method that grants an especially sickly pallor to Peter, who works under blaring fluorescent lights. It's a gimmick, to be sure, but in this case it's the right one, stemming from a desire to get out of the dialogue's way rather than out of any false penchant for minimalism.
The result is a straightforward thriller that plays like gangbusters, at least until you start to think about the ostensible fat Lindholm has trimmed away from his main course. Women, for example, hardly exist in this world except as, for Mikkel, crying wives far away on the phone in another country, or, for Peter, sadly lingering at the door. While Malling brings powerful shading to his benevolent corporatist, the kind of CEO with a vague but honest sense of duty towards his workers, Asbæk's Mikkel is mostly required to serve as our patient sufferer with kind eyes and a gentle woodsman's beard. Still, he's better developed than the pirates, who are rarely glimpsed but for one twitchy guard and whose only real characterization comes courtesy of the truisms spouted by the negotiator--proclamations like, "Time is a western thing; it means nothing to them."
That's hardly a superficial issue in a story that affects a certain global sophistication, grounding itself so comfortably in two very different social milieus and physical spaces, yet you could argue in Lindholm's favour that it's beside the point. After all, the nondescript title could just as easily refer to the company's stalled negotiations--and, by extension, to the western world's absurdly blasé protocol in bargaining for the lives of endangered workers--as to the pirates' actions. That's perhaps a generous reading of a film about Somali pirates featuring nary a word spoken by them, but A Hijacking earns some amount of generosity by virtue of its rigorous execution and at times unbearable tension.